Lets just start with this…
“Miracle” was released 10 years ago and it was about an event that happened 34 years ago. A bunch of college kids from America beat the big bad USSR who had won gold at the four previous Olympics coming into Lake Placid. It was an upset of all upsets and one that is still brought up in casual sports conversation.
Fastforward 34 years and expectations for USA Hockey are very different from that group in Lake Placid. NHL players have been allowed to compete in the last four Olympics and in that time America has brought home two Silver Medals in the 2002 and 2010 games. Going into Sochi this week there is no underdog story that they will make a movie about in 20 years. Either the USA will win gold or it won’t. We are starting to think like a real hockey country. Its kind of nice.
America will take a group of NHL veterans to Sochi. Many played in Vancouver so there won’t be a “who are these guys?” storyline there was four years ago. Once again USA will lean heavily on its talented goaltending and hope to develop some chemistry quickly.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma (I will tweet this out many a time the next 2 weeks) takes reign of the team that was constructed by Predators GM David Poile. Lets get into it
Here is a look at the roster and here is ESPN’s Scott Burnside’s insider access piece on how the team was built. While America doesn’t have the deepest roster in the tournament it was clearly a tough decision process for GM Polie, Dan Bylsma and the rest of the staff. Many were upset with those left off but it shows a lot not just that the USA has many tough decisions but that they also have a plan for building the best “Team” possible. Each guy was selected for a specific purpose. Some guys like Kane and Kessel are there to score while other guys like David Backes and Dustin Brown are there to give the team some edge and piss off the other team.
Forwards- Projected Depth Chart
(Bench Stepan- Wheeler)
Everyone knows Captain Zach Parise and Patty Kane but I think Toronto teammates Van Riemsdyk and Kessel will have a bigger impact. Not just because they are teammates but because Kessel has been on fire for the past month. You could flip Pavelski and Kesler if you want but I would assume that is your top six.
The third line is there for one reason, shut down the top scoring unit of the other team. Both Brown and Callahan have struggled all season to score goals but that won’t matter in Sochi. Bylsma will give them their marching orders to go a slow down the other teams top group. Get excited for them vs Ovie/Malkin/Semin.
The fourth line may shuffle and I could even see Oshie jumping up to play with Blues teammate Backes. Stastny has been dinged so Stepan could easily take his place. I am pretty sure Blake Wheeler is there so Shero/Bylsma can scout him further and potentially have the Pens trade for him.
Grade: B. Solid group. Not the firepower of some other teams but plenty of talent and the size will be a lot for any defense to handle.
Defense- Projected Depth Chart
Ryan Suter is the best American hockey player today and that is no disrespect to Kane. The guy plays 30 mins plus a night, runs the power play and can lock down any top pairing. I think they will put Faulk with him but that could easily be Shattenkirk or Carlson. McD and Shattenkirk are locks to play and the left-right shot was clearly a priority for USA. Martin-Orpik is a Pens pairing and I bet Bylsma leans heavy on them. This worries me since Martin is coming off a broken foot and Orpik hasn’t been good since coming off a concussion. I still think they should have taken Keith Yandle because of his PP ability but Martin/Suter can do the job fine. Plus Pavelski will be on the point on the PP as well. This is a good group assuming Martin/Orpik return to form.
Grade B-: Biggest question mark is does this unit have the speed to play? I worry about Orpik who has been declining the past two years.
Ah yes, America’s strength. Four years ago America rode Ryan Miller to a silver medal. In that time Miller has struggled as the Sabres have slipped to the basement of the NHL. Despite that fact Miller has been excellent so far this season. Coming into the picking process Miller was expected to be the #3 goalie who would basically be there for moral support but his play has put him back in position to start.
Meanwhile the favorite for the job is Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. LA rode Quick all the way to a Stanley Cup in 2012 and he followed that up in 2013 by winning the Vezina. He is like a crab out there on the ice and routinely makes absurd saves. He had some injuries early in the NHL season but the main issue for him so far (like Miller) is his team can’t score goals in front of him. So at the very worst if the US is struggling to score both Miller and Quick will be used to it.
Lastly Jimmy Howard will be the third goaltender. While I doubt he plays it is always good to have a guy with 40 plus playoff starts in case something goes wrong. Pretty absurd that America left home guys like Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider. Shows the depth America has in goal.
Head Coach: Dan Bylsma Penguins
Assistant Coaches: Tony Granato, Peter Laviolette, Todd Richards
You may remember this incident from 2012 between Bylsma/Grantato vs Laviolette…
I guess its just business because all of these guys are boys. Granato was even in Laviolette’s wedding. Either way Bylsma put together a good staff and seeing as I have seen Bylsma up close for five years now I am interested to see how he does in this setting. Like most coaches Bylsma has strengths and weaknesses. Seeing as Derek Engelland isn’t on Team USA I don’t think I will have much to complain about.
Main thing is Bylsma knows how to coach superstars but also relates to the “grit” guys because that is the type of player he was. I also like that Laviolette is on the staff for two reasons. First is his Flyers teams drove Bylsma’s Pens teams nuts so hopefully he can sure up his weaknesses. The second is Laviolette got fired from the Flyers earlier in the year and I assume this has allowed him to focus solely on Team USA. While I hated the guy when he coached the Flyers there is no doubt he can coach.
Thursday Feb 13 vs Slovakia 730 AM
Saturday Feb 15 vs Russia 730 AM
Sunday Feb 16 vs Slovenia 730 AM
Tuesday February 18th Qualification Round
Wednesday February 19th Quarterfinals
Friday February 21st Semifinals
Saturday February 22nd Bronze Medal Game 10am
Sunday February 23rd Gold Medal Game 7am
2. Americans in Russia: No medal off North American ice since 1972.
3. Will the bigger ice be a problem?: It wasn’t a problem in 2002 when America won Silver in Salt Lake
4. Group of death/First round bye?: The Russia game will get lots of hype but the US opens with Slovakia which is a tough out considering they have Zdeno Chara among many other NHL players. America used the bye in 2010 to avoid any of the big names until it met Canada in the final. They may not be so lucky this time around.
Meaningless prediction: Trying to predict a short/single elimination tournament like this is basically pointless but I doubt the US gets a bye. In fact I think they will be the 5 seed heading into the tournament portion and will have to get through both Finland and Sweden in order to get back to the gold medal game. Meanwhile on the other side of the bracket Canada and Russia will have a duel for the ages.
Enjoy the tournament everyone and here, have some more hype…